As the baby boomers who transformed Australian society shuffle off stage, Nigel Bowen asks what happens next.
At 34, social researcher Mark McCrindle likes to think of his age cohort as a middle child. “Quiet, compliant, they just get on with it. They never got much attention and they don’t expect it.” Typically, no one’s paying much attention, but that overlooked middle child is belatedly emerging from the shadow of its elder sibling and taking charge of the family business.
“Gen X have been punching below their demographic weight,” McCrindle points out. “They’re 44 per cent of the workforce but that’s not reflected in the leadership ranks of organisations. Keep in mind that at a similar age the baby boomers were very much in leadership positions because they were moving through the workforce in the boom years, without a big bubble of older people above them.”
Over the next five years or so, Australia will be transformed as that big boomer bubble floats off into retirement, leaving their long-frustrated juniors in charge of the nation’s governments, corporations, unions, courts, universities and media.
The changing of the guard is already well advanced at the political level. With the departure of John Howard, the bulk of political heavy hitters are either fag-end boomers, such as Kevin Rudd, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, or Gen X-ers such as Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, Nicola Roxon and Bill Shorten.
Agreement has not been reached as to where exactly Gen X starts and finishes, but if we accept 1961 as its starting point, Julia Gillard and Morris Iemma, not to mention Barack Obama, also qualify as X-ers.
Whatever label one sticks on the present crop of 30- to 40-something MPs, enough evidence is in to characterise their political style. Across the spectrum, it’s stolid managerialism as opposed to big-picture, crazy, brave theatrics; economic rationalism leavened with a little environmentalism and a moderately liberal approach to social issues.
So we see Australia’s first post-boomer government signing the Kyoto Protocol and apologising to the stolen generations; amending 100 laws that discriminate against same-sex couples but drawing the line at gay marriage; inviting the nation’s artists and intellectuals along to a brainstorming session facilitated by management consultants, but making it clear that arts and university funding won’t be returning to Keating or Whitlam levels.
“I was unusual in getting there at a relatively young age,” says a prototypical X-er politician, Natasha Stott Despoja. “Now I’m glad to see buddies from my uni days heading into Parliament, and other institutions of power, but I can’t predict what they will do. Although there are causes, such as the environment we’ve been involved in and, arguably, at the forefront of, I don’t think there’s a single rallying cry that unites our age group.
“We’re a generation that got used to the predicament of the workforce and society being structured a certain way. By the sheer numerical weight, the baby boomers have dominated, and we have not previously successfully challenged their authority. We just got on with the job.”
If generation X-ers are so given to describing themselves as just getting on with the job, it’s probably because they have raw memories of not having one. As the 2003 AMP-Natsem report Generation Xcluded noted: “In Australia, the changing economic environment created differences between the baby boomers and Gen X-ers. The boomers enjoyed cheap housing, free education, generous welfare benefits and plenty of job opportunities. The Gen X-ers have had to battle huge increases in the cost of housing and tertiary education, job insecurity and cuts in welfare.”
Gen X, in contrast to the generations that preceded and succeeded it, entered the labour market during a between-boom-times period of painful economic restructuring. But rather than creating any desire to regulate away capitalism’s rougher edges, X-ers’ experience of widespread unemployment and under-employment throughout the ’80s and early ’90s forged a generation of hardbitten rugged individualists.
“We’re too cynical for the left. The socialist project had already failed by the 1960s when our boomer betters took it up. Why would we repeat their mistake?” says John Birmingham, 43, whose He Died With A Felafel In His Hand serves as the Aussie X-ers’ On The Road.
“The boomers had already marched in the street, pushed every boundary. There was nowhere left for the X-er to go,” McCrindle argues. “Any outrage they felt, they internalised or expressed within their own little groups – they were never going to coalesce like their grandparents or parents and change society by introducing another New Deal or looking to some benign form of socialism.”
Dr Ariadne Vromen, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences, notes: “The majority of X-ers have so far voted to the left, be it Labor or the Greens. But they accept the free market; there’s little evidence they’d support large-scale government intervention in it. They’ve got a strong ethic that you create your own opportunities in life.
“They’re definitely committed to equality and more supportive of things like reconciliation and gay marriage than older voters. Housing affordability is a huge issue for them, but I can’t see a new political movement around that developing.
“They’re engaged in the community, but not so much with governments or broader political debates. They’re interested in issues they see as impacting their daily lives, be it interest rates or global warming. I’d predict we’ll see more focus on things like family-friendly workplaces as that generation move into positions of influence.”
McCrindle paints a similar picture. “X-ers played the game, did what you had to do, and were reasonably conservative. Even for those who did conform to that grunge-slacker stereotype, it was a short-lived phase of their early 20s. The demographic reality is that they’ve moved through all the traditional adult milestones – career, kids, setting up a home – in a similar way to their parents, albeit at an older age.
“X-ers will be realistic, unsentimental, streetwise operators when they reach the top. They never had that boomer idealism and they won’t be given to wild visions of changing society. It’ll be a steady, solid leadership style based on incremental change.
“Where they are more progressive than their predecessors is that while a boomer might say, ‘We need female representation on the board’, the X-er actually believes it. Gen X-ers are not converts to diversity like the boomers. They actually grew up with it; they embrace and appreciate it. Which is good news for women. We’ll see a lot more of them at senior levels.”
Whether that X-er tolerance can, or should, continue to extend to their parents is a subject of growing debate. Mainly through riding the economic cycles of the past half-century so well, and partly through having government policy so consistently slanted in their favour, the boomers, a quarter of the population, now control over half the national household wealth.
Older generations are typically wealthier than younger ones, but this is a historically unprecedented level of intergenerational inequity that led to a 2003 warning from Ian Macfarlane, the then governor of the Reserve Bank. “The young may resent the tax burden imposed on them to pay for the pension and health expenditure on the old … this will particularly be the case if they see the old as owning most of the community’s assets.”
Possibly because they’ve been too busy working 60-hour weeks to pay their HECS debts, private health insurance premiums and soul-crushing mortgages to think much about it, X-ers appear to have only a vague sense of how large a slice of the pie the boomers have carved out for themselves.
But it’s inevitable that even a generation as prone to resigned fatalism as the X-ers will begin to question why they’re providing so much middle-class welfare to the well-heeled old while the X-ers are struggling to finance their retirements and provide for their children.
The axing of the baby bonus and family tax benefit part B for X-ers earning roughly the income required to service the average Sydney mortgage in a budget that placed no such means testing on boomer-focused benefits might just be the start of the backlash – given some of the mutterings of X-er discontent that have emerged over the past month.
Race and gender dominated commentary around the Obama-Clinton contest. But the battle was also between the female half of America’s quintessential boomer couple and an uppity Gen X-er, whose desire to move on from “the psychodramas of the baby-boom generation” with its “old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago” resonated with voters still on the right side of 50.
Yet, until they start dying off, the boomers constitute too large and vocal a voting bloc for any politician in the Western world to risk upsetting. A coalition of X and Y voters could unite to reverse the slide into gerontocracy, but that seems unlikely to happen in Australia. However inured they’ve become to the boomers’ sense of entitlement, recession-scarred X-ers just can’t seem to countenance a similar mindset in the young, making such an alliance unfeasible.
“I think we hate spoilt Ys even more than we hate the boomers,” Birmingham says. “We’re so looking forward to seeing them get run over by the coming recession.”
McCrindle is doubtful that X-ers will be using their new positions of power to dish out payback, and wonders if his peers will even have much time to enjoy their corner offices before being turfed out by thrusting Y-ers.
“Intergenerational conflict is real – it plays out in workplaces and across society in the way people label themselves and others. But you’re not going to have an intergenerational war; you’re not going to have a group of people who’ve internalised the value of individualism and diversity mobilising on a generational basis to push against another generation,” McCrindle says.
“And you have to remember that this is a generation with Prince Charles syndrome. The typical Gen X-er has been stuck in middle management, unable to rise to the executive ranks, and now he sees these pushy, outspoken 20-somethings getting broad experience early on and rapidly advancing their careers. There’s that fear they’re going to be leapfrogged.”
Birmingham laments that “X will never be in control”.
“Those boomers will hang on till their dying breath. And then Y will sweep in at the funeral looking for the keys to the house and the car. When I raise these issues in my blog writing, the X-ers who comment all do so with deeply bitter black humour. We tend to think of ourselves standing mute in front of history’s big black tsunami; there’s a sense of pointlessness to organised political activity that stops us from getting too worked up. We’re tired. We’ve been tired from the age of 17.”